A Secret Guide to Homelessness

City has playbook, but you can’t see it

By R.E. Graswich
December 2019

Along North 12th Street, X Street or Alhambra Boulevard, the ubiquitous presence of unsheltered people and their tents, shopping carts, plastic bags, bicycles and detritus suggests Sacramento has no clue how to handle homelessness.

But that impression is wrong. The city does have a clue—recorded in a secret little publication called “Homeless Services Division Playbook.”

The Playbook covers a range of topics related to homelessness, starting with the city’s “roles and responsibilities.” The book’s primary mission is to arm city employees with talking points and factoids designed to calm the nerves of taxpaying, non-homeless residents who fear their neighborhoods are being overrun by relentless platoons of unsheltered people.

Curious thing about the Playbook. While its goal is to placate city residents and answer questions about homeless services, it’s not supposed to be seen by residents or homeless people. The book is classified material. The introduction says:

“This Playbook is not intended to be a public document, but to provide City staff with the information needed to understand the role of the City related to homelessness and to help answer common questions.”

In italicized red letters, the paragraph concludes, “Please do not distribute the Playbook to constituents!”

Despite the warnings, I got a copy. After examining the Playbook’s 41 pages, I can testify it doesn’t deserve a top-secret rating. There’s nothing incriminating. It’s simply a guide for city employees.

Still, the Playbook is interesting—if only for the way it works to convince residents that the city is managing the homeless crisis despite piles of painful evidence to the contrary.

 

The Playbook touches on the dilemma faced by the city—the reconciliation between homeless people who believe they can literally live outside the rules, and residents and merchants who are weary of dealing with them.

On one hand, the Playbook describes how Sacramento must be “compassionate to the needs of those most vulnerable in our community.” On the other hand, it admits the city must be “responsive to the concerns and impacts of homelessness on the greater community.” That’s a conundrum.

The early pages include typical bureaucratic kissing up. Yes, the Playbook congratulates city leaders for their wisdom in opening shelters and partnering with various agencies.

For me, the best parts are sections that provide city employees with guidelines to handle complaints about homelessness. It’s a tricky job, dealing with complaints. It takes a personal touch. Employees are warned not to “simply cut and paste the information into an email. There is often a nuance and context to a specific question.” Indeed.

The book has 11 pages of sample questions and answers. One part covers questions asked by people who are homeless. Another page deals with residents who want unsheltered folks to camp elsewhere. The answers are not always helpful. Some merely pass the buck.

Question: “What is the City’s stance on the criminalization of homelessness?” Answer: “It is not a crime to be homeless … The City’s focus is on preventing and ending homelessness first and foremost.”

Question: “There is a homeless encampment under the freeway. How do I get it removed?” Answer: “For encampments under the freeways, where the City does not own or maintain the land, the City must coordinate with CalTrans for cleanup.”

Ultimately, the Playbook is a nice try that falls short. The most honest sentence says, “We recognize that no one approach or solution will end homelessness in Sacramento.”

R.E. Graswich can be reached at regraswich@icloud.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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